01 March, 2009

My exercise journey...so far

It took me 5 years for it to sink in that my condition would not be changing and I would not recover from what I had (not that I was certain what I had). So for the next three years I then trained in Tai Chi and became skilled in the long form of it.I even helped my teacher teach it.

But with moving house amd family changes my regime began to slack off and I thought that maybe it's best that I give myself to this illness rather than try to fight it. I thought rest was best.. I reasoned that exercise wasn't ameliorating my symptoms and I was giving myself an easier life.

So I spent maybe four years without an exercise regime aside from walking to where i needed to go. What I didn't realise was that while exercise did not improve my condition it stopped it getting worse. I soon enough paid this heavy price for my penchant to immobility so that by the late nineties I was suffering more pain and stiffness and longer periods in relapse.

By this time too I was walking with the aid of a cane -- not so much to hold me up but to drive myself forward.


So for two years I'd work out each day in a large aquaculture pond we put in . It was 3 metres in diameter and I'd drag myself around it like I was swimming standing up. I even got a wet suit so that I could enter the water in Winter ( I live in sub tropical Brisbane Australia).

Despite my dedication I wasn't getting much to show from these water activities --which I'd do in 20 minute sessions: around and around the pool in chest deep water.

At the same time we really got into keeping terriers and I'd walk these when able for 40 minutes each day. A walking stick in one hand and the dogs leashed on the other.

While I was indeed back "doing exercise" my condition wasn't changing , in fact it seemed to be still getting worse.


After maybe 3 years using a cane -- even with the other exercise activities in place -- it struck me that my stride was shortening and I was hunching over when I walked -- just like an old man bent over his cane. At this stage I was trying to develop a planned walking program by using a pedometer to drive it.(And with a pedometer you do mesure your stride). So after reviewing my walking options I bought a pair of trekking poles and put aside the cane.

The change was remarkable. The poles pulled me upright becuase you grab them t chest height and I began to rotate my upper shoulder girdle much more as I walked. I'd walk the dogs with two poles and say, go to the shops or socialising with one in hand with a lot of swing in my step. The poles collapse up so they are easy to port around when you get to places . They even travel well in air flights..

With the increased upper body movement I discovered that I was losing a lot of upper body pain -- in my arms and across my Trapezius. This was despite that fact that I had used my arms to pull myself through the water in the tank without the same impact. The Trekking Poles were better for my upper body than the water work out.


Unfortunately I also began to develop some lower limb problems especially swelling around my toes and ankles and at times this was limiting my miobility. At one stage I pulled a knee muscle dancing and was crippled for six months. This really set me back. I thought, "Hell I'm soon going to be relying on one of those electric carts to get around." .

So I reviewed my options and since I used to ride a bicycle for a time I decided I'd try myself out on a scooter.
So I got my neighbor to convert a BMX bike into a scooter ( see pic)as scooters with larger wheels were not then available in Australia. So that's how I travelled hither and yon ( I don't drive). The scooter was great for getting off and on and it was easy to push rather than ride as needed. It could carry shopping and even a dog.
I later swapped this scooter for a kickbike .

While the kickbike is a great way to get around -- it is also like jogging without having to ram your feet into the pavement. Because you have to throw your leg forward it's a great way to lengthen your stride and flex your lower back . The kickbike at 9.5 kgm was so much lighter than my remodeled BMX scooter. I had originally thought that the kickbike's foot board was too narrow but that was a misconception on my part.


Finally I was getting back some control over my body when a new gym opened in my nighborhood. I wasn't into gyms at all but this one was different -- it was an old style boxing gym ran by a three tikesm New Zealand light weight champion. So I started going there first with a personal trainer session once a month then fortnightly then weekly.

I've been doing that for two years now and I've got even more control over my symptoms -- less pain , faster bounce back and a greater body and movement awareness.

I was doing boxing and some strength training as well as the usual sit ups and reps of this and that. The focus mitts workouts were the best for re-orienting my concentration even when I was in fog mode.It was excellent mental training too -- something you don't usually associate with exercise.

Soon after I began the gym work I put my trekking poles aside and no longer use them at all as I now walk upright without any cane or pole assisting me.


Since I wanted to be more like the other boxers in the way they trained I decided I wanted to jump rope. This was one of the standrda ways that boxers begin a training session. So for the next year I taught myself to skip slimply by practicing it. Skipping is good exercise because it can be done anywhere for short bursts. It also focuses your attention and teaches flexibility and postural awareness and locates your body moving in space very upright posture. It's quite remarkable really for a neglected school yard activity. I'm not a good skipper but thats' not the point. I can skip for 5 minutes in bursts of 100 if I'm lucky. That's all you need to master.


With the gym work I was doing I knew I was doing fine by my upper body pain and flexibility but my low back was still stiff and I had a lot of problems do a a squat. I think one of the major advantages with gym type exercises( and movment awareness regimes like Tai Chi) that work you head to toe is that you get to realize where you are weak or not very flexible. But most gym work for men panders to upper body strength and the rest of the torso tends to be neglected.

Then one day I had a session with Kettlebells and my whole approach to exercise training changed. For the first time I could really work my whole body not as a sort of pulley and lever machine but as a body in motion -- in normal motion. It wasn't just "pumping iron". Using low KB weights.


After all this time -- and I'm referring to a 12-14 year period -- a sort of ongoing exercise regime, that makes use of a few selected devices, and suits my condition, is forming. I have to vary it or skip it according to how I feel each day -- but the protocol is coming together primarily I guess because I've unconsciously moved from one level to another , making use of different tools as I progress. And most of all, I guess, although I didn't quite do this very consciously -- by default I addressed my symptoms and focused on specific aspects of them rather than try to solve the whole shebang with one appoach, the one 'treatment'.

It's not "exercise" per se or "strength training" per se or aerobics alone -- but specificity -- not that i was very coscious about being specific as to isolated symptoms or consequences of my illness. It was a process of discovering what seemed to suit where I was at and what my body needed.

Of course early on, especially with the boxing or the kettlebells I'd really get maxed out at a training session and feel it for the next three days as I'd be a lot of that time asleep or in bed. But once you get some control over the movements (you attain the skill so they are done correctly)-- you can ration your exertion as you feel you need to.
I found a personal trainer an essential element to the gym mix as I became more ambitious. Trainers tend to run you to the max so you need to stand your ground. Group sessions we too full on for me and in terms of exertion, rather dangerous. Similarly if you don't do your homework -- in terms of zeroing in on your own physical needs -- you can fall victim to a routine that isn't customized to what may be currently best for you.

I'm primarily interested in exercise so that I can maintain comfort -- less pain and stiffness -- and mobility.I'm also interested in exercise as a catalyst for good quality sleep. So I have to notch up its exertion quotient -- it has to have an exertion load. The trick is to ease up the theshold each time (or roll it back) so that you don't over do it.Its' not about running marathons or climbing mountains. It's about learning skills that are executed ergonomically without risk of injury.

In that regard kettlebells tick a lot of boxes -- so long as you start off with low weights and concentrate on performing the movements correctly (see CF videos) and work out for so that you build up to at least 20 minutes. There's a new exercise philosophy forming as new discoveries in physiology and exercise approach are being made.

None of the research I've read on exercise and Fibromyalgia is very useful , primarily I feel because it doesn't study the relationship over a long enough period of time and often recognises that the impact can be as much to do with a placebo effect bought on by the attention and education involved. Most studies have involved less that 2 years of ongoing monitoring. While the same research isn't really conclusive, exercise is a self evident component of addressing Fibromyalgia to halt or reverse some of the consequences the illness has on the body.
But exercise -- varying even from day to day or even within any one day -- can be another stressor so it isn't a straightforward thing to rule on the amount or the intensity. That begs the question of how do you measure exercise so that you can prescribe it for others?

How much? How long? How intense? What body systems, muscle groups or muscle fibres do you target?

If I had my time again, while I think there is a place of movement awareness regimes like Tai Chi and Feldenkrais (which I also used), these are essentially posture alignment regimes and Tai Chi's impact on musculature only really kicks in with religious long term practice to the level of a martial arts adherence.

The 'new regimes' that are being utilized are a lot different in their approach because they are geared to a protocol of :

  1.  working for set, short measured durations -- often no more than for 20 minutes of intensity
  2. working at varying capacities of intensity -- pitched as a percentage of total work load. So you have, say, a 60% or 75% workout rather than one of one hundred percent.
  3. working to engage the whole body not to sculpt it but rather to replicate normal physically strenuous activity as distinct from exotic gym hardware routines
  4. working in short sharp sets with brief respites between 'stations' or sets. Eg: 20 second exertions followed by 10 second rests.( See example: Tabata Squats -- a basic Cross Fit exercise which is a challenge that could be tackled by many FMS sufferers by adapting the regime to fitness levels esp if the drop for the squat is slowed to a count of 5 seconds (5 seconds down/bounce up; 5 seconds down/bounce up, etc. As I suggested I couldn't handle squats very well until I used kettlebells to halp me to get down there.)